Integral Emergence vs. Co-evolution


Integral Emergence is a term you might hear used to describe how multiple aspects of reality arise simultaneously. This idea is important to any understanding of Pragmatism; and it is also central to Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory. In fact, Wilber credits Charles Sanders Peirce as an important inspiration for his own four quadrant model of integral emergence. One way to get a deep sense of the nature of what the term integral emergence is pointing toward is to compare it to another popular idea, that of co-evolution.

The concept of co-evolution has gained some popularity over the past few decades. The word refers to a situation where different things evolve together as part of one interconnected whole system. So as the plant life in a region evolves so too will the animal species in the same area. Today we often hear this word associated with the collective evolution of our species in a way that seemingly means that we as individuals will each take responsibility for our own growth and that together we will evolve into a new kind of humanity. This type of interdependent development of separate species or individuals is not the same as the type of emergence that the Pragmatists and especially Charles Sanders Peirce were envisioning when they created a philosophy based on a vision of evolution as a co-emergent process of creation.

To describe how I understand the co-emergence or integral emergence of Pragmatism I want to use a metaphor. Charles Sanders Peirce saw reality as emerging in the form of triadic relationships. I said in my last post that nothing exists independently and now I would add that Peirce believed that nothing exists except in triads. And through out his career as a thinker he came up with different ways to describe the essential triads of reality. As the originator of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols) he defined the basic triad as object-sign-interpretant. In his ontology he spoke about the triad of firstness-secondness- thirdness. The bottom line is that he believed that everything that exists does so, and must do so, as triadic relationships that are co-emergent.

Now for the metaphor, imagine a piece of blank white paper (or put one in front of you if you want.) Now draw or imagine a circle on the paper.  What is the nature of the circle on the paper? A circle consists of three aspects. You can point to the “inside” of the circle. You can point to the “outside” of the circle. And you can point to the line or “boundary” that separates the inside of the circle from the outside. You cannot have a circle without these three elements. Can you image a circle without an inside? an outside? a boundary? Try to imagine it and you will find you can’t get your mind to go there – it is literally impossible to imagine, which Peirce would say means that it is impossible for it to exist. You could say that the circle must have been present in its potential form on the original blank white page, but it was certainly not there yet. And there was nothing about the page that lent itself to a circle any more than a square or a triangle or any other two-dimensional shape.

Now think back to when you were drawing the circle. As you drew the line that would eventually become the boundary it was already separating one side of the line from the other even before it became the closed loop of the circle. One of the sides of the line would eventually become the inside of the circle, the other side of the line would eventually become the outside of the circle. So as you were drawing the circle the inside, the outside and the boundary were all co-emergent from the start. This is how I believe Charles Sanders Peirce imagined everything emerging as triads. In our metaphor everything that could possibly emerge on the blank of paper must emerge as a relationship between an inside and an outside and the boundary that separates them.

The point that I am making is that the terms co-evolution and integral emergence are pointing toward something more profound than individual things developing together, they are expressing a vision of reality as a multi-dimensional emerging event. There is an absolute necessity for simultaneous growth not as two or more separate things that grow together, but rather as different aspects of one occurrence of growth. I believe that the circle metaphor helps convey this essential mutual unity. The circle is not built from an inside, an outside, and a boundary like a house is built from wood and nails. As you draw a circle you are automatically also drawing the inside of the circle and the outside of the circle simultaneously. These three aspects mutually define what a circle is and cannot be separated. That is why integral emergence may ultimately be a better descriptor than co-evolution because the prefix “co” implies multiplicity, where integration implies wholeness.